The dramatic form of tragedy dates back to the fifth century B.C., when Greeks held religious festivals to honor Dionysus, the god of fertility, wine, and drama. The earliest tragedies consisted of four successive plays (three tragedies and one comedy) in which mythical heroes and heroines were overcome by obstacles and met with catastrophe. Besides providing entertainment, these tragedies enabled spectators to experience catharsis (purging of pity and fear).
Some of the famous ancient tragedies include Oresteia by Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.), who is credited with inventing tragedy; Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (496–406 B.C.); and Medea and Trojan Women by Euripides (c. 484–406 B.C.). Tragedies by the famous English dramatist William Shakespeare (1564–1616) draw upon the works of Roman statesman and playwright Seneca (4 B.C.–A.D. 65), who wrote during the first century. Seneca is credited with creating the dramatic conventions still popular today, artfully combining unity of time and place, violence, bombastic language, revenge, and ghostly appearances.
Further Information: Aeschylus. [Online] Available http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia?entry=Aeschylus, October 23, 2000; Aeschylus. [Online] Available http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc3.htm, October 23, 2000; "Aeschylus." MSN Encarta.[Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/index/conciseindex/10/0101F000.htm, October 23, 2000; Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy. New York: Methuen, 1985; Kerr, Walter. Tragedy and Comedy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967; Mandel, Oscar. A Definition of Tragedy. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982; Mason, H. A. The Tragic Plane. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985; Sewall, R. B. The Vision of Tragedy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959.